Imbibing American History Through Its Cocktails
Jerry Thomas mixing a Blue Blazer (via Wikimedia)
Sporting a top hat, diamond-studded vest, and handlebar moustache, Jerry Thomas was a striking figure behind the bar. Things only got more theatrical when he set his mixed whiskey on fire and poured it back and forth in dim lighting to produce an arc of blue flame. The drink was called a Blue Blazer, and while it was definitely the most dramatic drinkmaking the 19th century had seen, Thomas was also the first to really consider mixology as an art and a profession.
Although his New York City bar at Broadway and 22nd Street is now a Restoration Hardware, the "father of mixology" was still a constant presence in the recent Manhattan Cocktail Classic. The series in New York City focused on contemporary cocktail culture had several events that explored how cocktails are a part of American history. And they are a uniquely American creation, swirling together influences from abroad with local distilling into the community of bars and taverns that grew along with our cities, even during Prohibition.
100 years of Grand Central event at the Campbell Apartment (all photographs by the author)
The highlight by far was the 100 years of Grand Central Terminal event at the Campbell Apartment with father-son duo Jeffrey and Jonathan Pogash of the Cocktail Guru. The three drinks served all traced back to historic recipes that recreated what New Yorkers would have consumed around the time of the opening of Grand Central Terminal in 1913. Of course, as Jeffrey Pogash noted, "recipes are meant to be changed, that's just the nature of the cocktail, it's a creative process."
Early mixology book
For example, there was a Rum Punch from an 1827 book that had the basics of rum with sugar and lemon peel, and then the Rob Roy mixed from scotch whiskey that was imagined in the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 (an opulent locale now gone, with the Empire State Building now standing in its place). They were followed by the Gin Daisy, a drink that's not terribly common now, but was once quite popular. Its mix of gin, lemon, and grenadine was based on a recipe by bartender Tom Bullock in his 1917 The Ideal Bartender, which was the first cocktail book to be published by an African American.
The Campbell Apartment
The Campbell Apartment was restored into a bar in 1999, and its name is a bit of a misnomer. The space on the ground level of Grand Central was once the office of financier John W. Campbell, although he did sleep there from time to time. He also threw Prohibition Era parties for underground drinking in the country's dry years. While these were later than Jerry Thomas' time, who lived from 1830 to 1885, his imprint on cocktails was sealed long before. With bars in Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in addition to his presence in New York, Thomas was one of the first to add bitters to drinks, which is the defining feature of a cocktail, as opposed to the previous "slings" that had a spirit, water, and sugar.
Bar in the Campbell Apartment
Thomas succeeded partly with his touch for the spectacle, with Jeffrey Pogash noting that he was close to P.T. Barnum and "they were both excellent showmen." One of his tricks was even said to involve two white mice named Tom and Jerry that hid inside his top hat. However, he also published the first book on drinks ever printed in the States. Pogash had well-worn copies of it on-hand.
Safe in the Campbell Apartment
Unfortunately, Thomas died totally broke. However, with the renewed interest in classic cocktail history through the current bar scene, he maintains a high profile. The Campbell Apartment now features a seasonal rotation of drinks that are a tribute to different eras, and as you sip on one beneath the Florence-based interior that remains darkly lit even in broad daylight, you can feel as if you've slipped back into an old bar of Thomas' time.
Dale DeGroff's speakeasy presentation
Over at Macao Trading Co. in Tribeca, Dale DeGroff who made his reputation in the Rainbow Room high in the GE Building, gave a narrated, musical presentation on the speakeasy and cocktail history of New York and beyond. As he explained, "we're a country today because of rum," referring to the abundance of distilleries in the 18th century. This contributed to the Sugar Act that was one of the instigators in the American Revolution. It's these kinds of details that DeGroff wove into a broad narrative, with moments as diverse as the debauchery of Storyville in New Orleans and the trap doors added behind New York bars like P.J. Clarke's during Prohibition that remain as temperance reminders. His story culminated in the resurgence of interest in cocktails as not just a way to drink, but a way to experience history.
Mandarine Napoleon event at Pouring Ribbons
Finally, there was a rather different side of cocktail history at Pouring Ribbons in Alphabet City with an event with Mandarine Napoleon. The tribute to the French emperor isn't just a catchy name, this liquor was actually designed for Napoleon Bonaparte himself. "Napoleon was not a big drinker, but he drank cognac," said Marc de Kuyper of De Kuyper Royal Distillers, a Dutch company that revived the cognac. The recipe for it goes back to the 1800s when Napoleon's chemist and physician had the idea to add mandarins to cognac, perhaps linked to the proliferation of the fruit on Napoleon's island birthplace of Corsica. The recipe was lost for years until the Belgian chemist Louis Schmidt rediscovered it and the drink was finally brought to the public in 1892. It's still marketed in its original style of bottle, which looks a bit like a mottled wine bottle, as well as with the Napoleonic icon of an upside down fleur-de-lis. However, the careful mixing into bespoke cocktails is definitely a 20th century American inspiration.
While the Manhattan Cocktail Classic briefly brought this concentrated focus on how something as simple as ordering a drink at the bar can link into history, it's something you can explore on your own at many of the classic cocktail bars that are flourishing. So next time you order a drink, remember Jerry Thomas setting the whiskey in flames is part of its story.